Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Renouncing the Search

In the process [of modern philosophy and rationalism], faith came to be associated with darkness. There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.

Slowly but surely, however, it would become evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown. As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.

Lumen Fidei 3

Reflection Time again for ‘Tuesdays With Francis’, our weekly reading and reflection on Lumen Fidei. Although, reading this paragraph, one is tempted to call this ‘Tuesdays With Francis (and, ahem, Benedict),’ as his distinctive style and thought patterns are all over this encyclical which he largely wrote. But it is an encyclical, and as such it is from Peter, and Peter’s chair is occupied by our good pope Francis now. So Tuesdays with Francis it is.

Here we see one way the modern world has tried to resolve the conflict between faith and reason. Reason gives us truth, and faith gives us comforting feelings, essentially. This is Schleiermacher’s effort to resolve the question. But the compromise breaks down on several points.

For one thing, I am not consoled by my faith unless it is, in fact, objectively true. If Jesus is not really raised from the dead, my nice thoughts and feelings about Him give me no real consolation. A faith that does not make truth claims does not provide us with any nice feelings, does it?

But also, reason unaided by faith only goes so far, and as the Pope points out, it doesn’t go very far at all in things that have proven to matter a great deal to human beings. Where are we from? Where are we going? What is it for? What good is it? How are we to live good lives, lives that correspond to the truth of who we are, where we’re from and where we are going?
Scientific reason and the experimental methods have not one singular, solitary thing to say about any of that, nor can they, and any real scientist will readily, happily acknowledge that. But… people care about these questions, right? I do, and I think the mass of humanity do, too.

The rationalist answer is to abandon these questions and live according to the small light we have been given by unaided reason. The results are precisely what the encyclical says: “in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.” And post-modern nihilism indeed leaves us right there, in a sort of metaphysical despair which yields to various forms of hedonistic oblivion, mystagogical obscurantism, or political radicalism: the worship of pleasure, power, or demons, essentially.

It is not unlike the temptations of Christ in the desert – bread, or power politics (the casting down from the temple as a brilliant PR coup), or the worship of Satan. This is where we are if all we have is reason and reason alone, a reason confined to the sciences and their built-in limits.

And so we are left in a quandary, aren’t we? …until next Tuesday, of course. 

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